Australian rock band’s 1988 breakthrough remains great-sounding album to this day
Like I suspect most folks living outside of Australia, I first heard about The Church in the late 1980s when they released Under The Milky Way. The tune’s spacey sound created by combining a 12-string acoustic with an electric guitar and keyboards in the background proofed to be an immediate attraction and made me buy the album Starfish on CD, even though I didn’t know any of the other tracks. Clearly, this was in the pre-streaming age where somebody like me who wasn’t much into singles had to buy entire albums to own certain songs.
Released in February 1988, Starfish was the Australian rock band’s international breakthrough, fueled by Under The Milky Way, the lead single that got plenty of radio play in Germany. While the lyrics of this and the other tracks on Starfish are rather dark and psychedelic, the combination of great sound and lead vocalist Steve Kilbey’s distinct voice make for an album that continues to be seductive to this day. I can’t necessarily say this about many other ’80s records.
The Church in 1988
The Church were formed in Sydney, Australia in March 1980. The founding members included singer, songwriter and bassist Steve Kilbey, guitarist Peter Koppes and drummer Nick Ward. Marty Wilson-Piper joined one month later as the band’s second guitarist. Later that year, The Church signed with EMI-Parlophone and recorded their debut Of Skins And Heart. It was released in Australia in April 1981 and internationally the following January as The Church with a slightly altered track listing.
Starfish was the band’s fifth studio record. By then Richard Ploog had taken over on drums for Nick Ward, who had left in early 1981. The album was recorded in Los Angeles and produced by session musicians and producers Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi. At the time, Wachtel who more recently played in Keith Richard’s backing band X-Pensive Winos, already had worked with other heavy weights, such as Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Linda Ronstadt. Ladanyi had an impressive credits as well, including production work with the likes of Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and Don Henley. Let’s get to some music.
Here’s the album’s great opener Destination. The tune, which also came out separately as the record’s third single in July 1988, was credited to all four members of The Church.
Next is the aforementioned Under The Milky Way. How could I possibly skip it? The song was co-written by Steve Kilbey and his then-girlfriend and guitarist Karin Jansson, founder of alternative Australian rock band Curious (Yellow).
According to the record’s description on Apple Music, the lyrics for North, South, East And West reflect Kilbey’s dark impressions about Los Angeles in the ’80s. Here’s an excerpt: War’s being waged and the world’s just a stage (in this city)/The real estate’s prime, the number plates rhyme (liquidity)/Wear a gun and be proud, but bare breasts aren’t allowed (in this city)/ Dream up a scam and then rake in the clams (liquidity)…The tune was credited to all members of the band.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is Spark. The song was written by guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper who also sang lead.
The last tune I’d like to call out is Reptile. Credited to all four band members, the song also was released separately as the album’s second single in April 1988. Another track featuring great interplay between the two guitars, it sounds a bit like combining a Byrdsy jingle-jangle with a U2/The Edge-like guitar sound.
Since Starfish, The Church have recorded 12 additional studio albums to date, the latest of which, Man Woman Life Death Infinity, appeared in October 2017. I previously reviewed it here. Starfish remains the band’s most successful commercial release to this day. It was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in December 1992 and has sold 600,000 copies in the U.S. only.
A two-part feature looking back at music of the decade
Here is the second and final installment of my feature looking back at music and some related events in the ’80s. This part is focused on the second half of the decade. As noted in part 1, it isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review but instead a selection of things I find noteworthy.
To me the key music event during this year and perhaps the entire decade was Live Aid. I was watching it on TV from Germany while simultaneously taping it on music cassette from the radio. Organized by Bob Geldorf and Midge Ure as a fundraiser to fight starvation in Ethiopia, Africa, the benefit concert was conducted on July 13 simultaneously in the U.K. at London’s Wembley Stadium and the U.S. at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. Among others, it featured Status Quo, Queen, U2, David Bowie, The Who and Paul McCartney at Wembley, while some of the performers in Philly included Joan Baez, Madonna, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner and, in a less-than-stellar appearance, a reunited Led Zeppelin featuring Phil Collins on drums. The concerts were watched by an estimated global TV audience of 1.9 billion across 150 countries and raised approximately 150 million British pounds.
Other events that year included the official launch of VH-1 on cable TV in the U.S. (Jan 1); recording of the charity single for Africa We Are The World (Jan 28), co-written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and performed by USA For Africa, who apart from Jackson and Ritchie featured Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Cindy Lauper, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and numerous other top artists; release of Dire Straits’ fifth studio album Brothers In Arms, their best-selling record that among others became known for its exceptional sound quality due to its all-digital recording (May 13); Michael Jackson’s purchase of the publishing rights for most of The Beatles’ catalog for $47 million, out-bidding former artistic collaborator McCartney whose success in music publishing had inspired Jackson to increase his activities in the business (Sep 6); and Roger Waters’ announced intention to leave Pink Floyd, which marked the start of a two-year legal battle over the rights to the band’s name and assets.
The biggest hit singles of 1985 were Shout (Tears For Fears), We Are The World (USA For Africa), Take On Me (a-ha), I Want To Know What Love Is (Foreigner) and Material Girl (Madonna). Following is Money For Nothing, the second single from Dire Straits’Brothers In Arms album, which they performed at Live Aid. Like on the studio recording, it featured Sting on backing vocals.
On Jan 30, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held its first induction ceremony. The first batch of inductees included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. While over the years since, there has been much debate over who should be in the Rock Hall, the selection process, the award categories, etc., I think there is no doubt that the above artists all well-deserving inductees.
Other events: Bob Geldorf’s knighthood award to recognize his work for Live Aid and other charity concerts for Africa (Jun 10); release of Madonna’sTrue Blue album, the best-selling record of year (Jun 30); and disbanding of The Clash, Electric Light Orchestra (revived by Jeff Lynne in 2000) and Men At Work.
The top-performing hit singles included Rock Me Amadeus (Falco) – the first German-language song to top the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, Papa Don’t Preach (Madonna), The Final Countdown (Europe), Take My Breath Away (Berlin) and West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys). The 1986 tune I’d like to highlight is Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel, which was first released as a single in April. It also appeared on his fifth studio album So that came out the following month. Here’s the song’s official video, which won multiple accolades in 1987, including a record nine awards at the MTV Music Video Music Awards and “Best British Video” at the Brit Awards. It’s definitely one of the most memorable music videos of the decade.
Some of the events in music during that year included the induction of Aretha Franklin as the first woman into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Jan 3); release of U2’s fifth studio album The Joshua Tree (Mar 9), which topped the charts in 20-plus countries and became one of the world’s most commercially successful records, selling more than 25 million copies; Whitney Houston’s second studio album Whitney, the first record by a female artist to debut at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 (Jun 27); launch of MTV Europe (Aug 1); and release of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, Pink Floyd’s first studio album after the departure of and legal battle with Roger Waters (Sep 7). Waters finally wrapped up his legal separation from the band later that year.
The highest-charting hit singles were La Bamba (Los Lobos), Never Gonna Give You Up (Rick Astley); I Wanna Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me (Whitney Houston), It’s A Sin (Pet Shop Boys) and Who’s That Girl (Madonna) – I remember each of these songs like it was yesterday! Here’s Where The Streets Have No Name from my favorite U2 album The Joshua Tree. Credited to the band (music) and Bono (lyrics), the tune was released as the album’s third single in August 1987, five months after the record’s appearance.
Some of the music events that year included the induction of The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Drifters, Bob Dylan and The Supremes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Jan 20); near-death experience for Alice Cooper on stage after one of the props, the Gallows, malfunctioned – yikes! (Apr 7); sale of legendary soul label Motown Records to MCA and financial firm Boston Ventures for $61 million (Jun 27); John Fogerty’s win of what sounds like a frivolous self-plagiarism lawsuit Fantasy Records had brought against him, claiming his 1985 comeback tune The Old Man Down The Road was too similar to Run Through The Jungle, which he had recorded with Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1970 (Nov 7); and final concert by Roy Orbison in Akron, Ohio (Dec 4) prior to his death from a heart attack only two days thereafter.
Leading hit singles: A Groovy Kind Of Love (Phil Collins), Don’t Worry Be Happy (Bobby McFerrin), Always On My Mind (Pet Shop Boys), Heaven Is A Place On Earth (Belinda Carlisle) and Take Me To Your Heart (Rick Astley). One 1988 song I like in particular is Under The Milky Way Tonight by Australian outfit The Church. Co-written by Steve Kilbey and Karin Jansson, it became the lead single to their excellent fifth studio album Starfish. Both were released in February that year. Here’s a clip.
I can’t believe I made it to the last year of the decade! Some of the events I’d like to highlight are criticism of Madonna by religious groups worldwide over alleged blasphemous use of Christian imagery in her music video for Like A Prayer (Feb 23), which had premiered on MTV the day before; release of Bonnie Raitt’s 10th studio album Nick Of Time, one of my favorite records from her (Mar 21); release of Tom Petty’s excellent debut solo album Full Moon Fever (Apr 24); Ringo Starr’s formation of his All-Starr Band (Jul 23); opening of The Rolling Stones’ North American tour in Philadelphia to support their comeback album Steel Wheels (Aug 31), two days after the album had dropped; and release of Neil Young’s 17th studio album Freedom (Oct 2), best known for the epic Rockin’ In The Free World.
Key hit singles were Like A Prayer (Madonna), Eternal Flame (The Bangles), Another Day In Paradise (Phil Collins), The Look (Roxette) and Love Shack (The B-52s). The final ’80s tune I’d like to call out via clip is Down To London by Joe Jackson, an artist I’ve listened to for many years. He recorded the song for his 10th studio release Blaze Of Glory, which appeared in April 1989.
After raving about Under The Milky Way Tonight in my previous post, I thought I might as well put up a clip of the tune. Apparently, this live performance was captured during the induction of The Church into the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Hall of Fame in 2010.
Steve Kilbey, the band’s songwriter and bassist co-wrote the tune with his then domestic partner Karin Jansson, guitarist of the Swedish punk band Champagne. It was included on The Church’s fifth studio album Starfish, released in February 1988. The song also appeared separately as the record’s lead single.
Under The Milky Way Tonight brought The Church significant mainstream success in Australia and beyond. In the U.S., the track peaked at no. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 and climbed all the way up to no. 2 on the Mainstream Rock chart. It also charted in New Zealand, Canada, the U.K. and The Netherlands. While I don’t know about the German charts, I definitely recall the song got significant radio play at the time. That’s where I first heard it.